A big question’s been burning through the public consciousness this week: should we be allowed to create ‘designer babies’? I’m sure you’ve all heard the term, but basically it’s used to describe the process of selecting an embryo that has desirable (or doesn’t have undesirable) genes during IVF – which often produces numerous embryos.
On Tuesday I attended a really interesting a debate on the subject held by the St James Ethics centre in Sydney, which definitely had a lot of people talking. And a report on Channel Ten’s The Project
the night before brought the issue of genetic selection into the mainstream - where many people are already getting freaked out about it. But what's all the fuss about?
On the surface, selecting an embryo based on its genes is a good thing. Many people are carriers for genetic diseases such as Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, neurofibromatosis or haemophilia, without having any idea. If we are silent carriers of these genes and we meet up and breed with another carrier, the offspring will have a high chance of ending up with a potentially fatal and debilitating disease.
While many diseases can be tested for during pregnancy, by that stage the mother faces a hard choice about whether to abort or risk a life of constant care for their children.
So an alternative is to have a so-called ‘designer baby’ - to preselect an embryo by undergoing IVF and then screening each of the resulting embryos for the disease. That way, a woman can select the embryo without the disease to be implanted into her uterus and her baby will grow up without that disease. It’s a happy ending for everyone.
This process is already legal and happening in Australia. But many people worry about the moral and societal implication of this process –and what comes next.
Currently it’s illegal in Australia for a parent to select the sex of their child or anything else except the absence of disease through the IVF process. But in other countries such as the US, parents can already pick whether they want a girl or a boy, and there’s pressure for the same thing to be legalised here. And it doesn’t stop there.
Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, we’re now able to relatively cheaply test people’s entire genomes, and we know more than ever about what genes are linked to which traits. In fact, we have found genetic links to personality as well as physical traits, such as introversion/extroversion, the likelihood someone will cheat and aggression, just to name a few.
So if we’re now screening for disease genes in embryo, will we soon be screening for genes that make people fat? Or pretty? Or intelligent?
To be clear, despite the name ‘designer baby’, scientists aren’t talking about creating genes that don’t exist or tinkering with what’s already there – they can simply select from the embryos they’re presented with. But people are still understandably worried.
The argument against designer babies hinges on several points – if we’re selecting our children’s genes, what are we missing out on? We need the inspiring disabled and sick people of the world, such as Stephen Hawking and Beethoven.
Also, if we have the potential to screen out genetic diseases, what will happen to the people whose parents can’t afford IVF or who chose not to use it? Will we discriminate against their disability? Will the government support them?
More importantly, does the whole process turn our children into commodities, objects we can control?
On top of that, there’s the worry that the process will further divide rich and poor, and the concern that this is just a step away from eugenics – the pursuit of improving a species genes – which was practised by Hitler and the Nazi party.
In contrast, the argument for designer babies is simply that if we can give our children the best chance at succeeding in life, shouldn’t we?
In fact, Professor Julian Savulescu from Oxford University who spoke at the debate on Tuesday night says it’s our “moral obligation”
to create designer babies, as they’ll grow up to be ethically better children.
But he says what separates this from the Hitler-era eugenics is that parents will have a choice – no one will be forced to screen their children or select for certain traits. But having the technology available for parents that want to give their children the best shot at life and be better people is a good thing, Savulescu believes.
While this sounds a little Brave New World
-esque. I have to admit I can see his point. I’m not sold on being able to choose how our children look, but I feel like parents (especially wealthy ones) do that anyway, through plastic surgery, personal trainers and a lot of facials. And I think having society filled with better people wouldn’t be a bad thing.
I mean, society is OK, but there are plenty of problems. There’s inequality, corruption, rape, starvation and child abuse. We’re also blatantly harming the one planet we know that harbours life in the Universe, so I believe there’s room for improvement.
If we could select children that are more altruistic and more intelligent, could they help us build a better society where we actually use the renewable energy technologies available to us instead of burning through every last remaining piece of coal or oil on the planet?
However, I have to admit I’m not quite convinced, with my limited knowledge of genetics, that selecting for genes linked to personality traits would be much more than a waste of money. I know the technology will develop further, but right now we know that which genes are actually expressed (not just which ones are present) is dependent on our environment
, diet and a whole range of other things. So I don’t think we’ll actually have as much control as people are worrying we’ll have.
Still, I’m definitely not saying that we should run blindly into this, there are obvious risks and there needs to be regulation. But the technology is already here and it has the potential to do a lot of good. And people are going to try to control their children regardless, through non genetic means such as abuse, helicopter parenting and teenage boob jobs (have you seen Toddlers and Tiaras
I think we should be cautious, but we shouldn’t let a bunch of bad parents and scary scenarios scare us away from a process that will give our children the best chance at having a healthy and happy life.
What do you think? Are you for or against designer babies? Have you heard much about the debate? My best friend and I already disagree on this subject (as we found out at Tuesday's debate) and still love each other anyway, so I'm all for open-minded discussion.Fiona MacDonald is a features writer with madison who has a degree with honours in science. She hopes she doesn’t sound like a crazy scientist who wants to destroy the world through new technology.